Obituary: Catfish Hunter

FOR THE decade on either side of 1970, Catfish Hunter was one of the American League's most dominant pitchers. In 1968 he threw the AL's first perfect game, retiring all 27 hitters he faced, and his 224 career victories and 3.26 lifetime earned run average guaranteed him a place in baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But his historical significance lay elsewhere. For James Augustus "Catfish" Hunter, down-home boy from rural North Carolina, was a man who changed the financial balance of power in sport.

The moment came in 1974, shortly after he had inspired the Oakland Athletics to three straight World Series victories, and won what would prove his only Cy Young award. Hunter discovered that Charlie Finley, the A's owner, had violated a part of the player's then $100,000-a-year contract. Hunter took legal action, and the contract was voided. Briefly he was terrified: "I didn't have a job, I didn't realise the implications of what was happening." He soon did. Within weeks, all but one of the 24 major league teams made offers for his services. The winners were the New York Yankees, who signed Hunter to a five-year deal worth $3.35m, making him the highest-paid player in baseball by far.

What Hunter had achieved was not quite free agency: that only came in a separate case in 1975, when the US courts threw out the so-called "reserve clause" which could tie players to a single club almost for ever. But, for his colleagues in baseball, he had unlocked the future by showing them the true market value of a star performer. From then on American, and ultimately world sport, would never be the same, as power moved, slowly but unstoppably, from the clubs and governing sports federations to the players themselves.

In America, the trend spread from baseball to basketball and football; later the revolution would engulf soccer, rugby and every other professional team sport around the world. The 1996 Bosman ruling which permits European footballers total freedom at the end of their contracts is a linear descendant of Catfish Hunter's ground-breaking case.

In retrospect, the landmark 1974 decision marked the apogee of his career on the pitcher's mound. Though he notched up 23 victories in his first season in New York, and a place on the Yankees' triumphant World Series teams of 1977 and 1978, injury was taking its toll and when his contract ended he retired at the comparatively early age of 33 from the game he had graced for 15 years. In truth, leaving the Bronx was no hardship; ever the country boy, he joyously returned to his farm outside Hertford, the tiny North Carolina town where he had been born in 1946, and his favourite pastimes of fishing and hunting.

Hunter had learnt his pitching skills the old-fashioned way; taught the rudiments by his elder brothers, he perfected the accuracy that would become his trademark by ceaselessly throwing baseballs at a hole in the barn door. But his colourful nickname was something of a fraud, thrust upon him by Charlie Finley along with a legend that he had once run away from home and then placated his mother by returning with two catfish. She always hated the story, and throughout his life Hertford knew him as plain "Jimmy".

His last public appearance was in March at the Yankees' spring training in Florida, among a new generation of players who were, partly thanks to him, being paid anything up to $70m for five years' work. By then however Hunter had been diagnosed with amyotropic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, a rapidly advancing neurological illness for which no cure is known.

James Augustus ("Catfish") Hunter, baseball player: born Hertford, North Carolina 8 April 1946; married (two sons, one daughter); died Hertford 9 September 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea